PORT-AU-PRINCE -- They arrive one by one, taking their seats around the expansive table with worn chairs and color-coded microphones, ready to shred opponents in the battle to shape public opinion.
Every Saturday, on the Haitian radio version of CNN’s Crossfire, politicians, pundits, critics and want to-be kingmakers vie for a chance to lob accusations, cross verbal swords and debate Haiti’s future. Bickering politicians drop in unannounced, pro-government operatives fire off text messages defending the administration and everyone tries to avoid the shrapnel from the latest political bombshells.
This is Ranmase, where there is no studio audience, no applause meter and no stop clock — just the amplified sound of Creole-accented voices emanating throughout the city.
In taxi cabs and beauty shops, from Port-au-Prince to Paris to Miami and Montreal, listeners tune in for the political firefight. And it’s all happening in a country where free speech historically has been repressed.
“This is a Saturday ritual. You have to listen in,” said Steven Benoit, a maverick senator and frequent guest. “After the show, you go on the Internet or into the streets, and everybody is talking about what was said on Ranmase.”
Moderating the show is Jean Monard Metellus, a respected journalist who at times is more a quiet ringleader than a referee.
“This is the people’s courtroom,” said Metellus, host of the broadcast since 2004. “ Ranmase is the intersection of all the ideas of society, and the bringing together of all the actors who make the news.”
But bringing such a disparate cast of characters to the table on Ranmase — English for “to wrap up” – doesn’t mean it’s “going to necessarily end with a handshake,” Metellus warns.
Lately, the case on trial has been the deepening problems of President Michel Martelly as his administration faces growing discontent over rising food prices, allegations of corruption and a protracted political crisis over installing a permanent electoral council. With monthly protests clogging the streets of Haitian cities, the president’s problems are playing out over the radio.
A recent broadcast on Martelly’s woes went on uninterrupted for five-and-a-half hours. One government minister stormed out after losing her temper. Another government defender foundered so badly that a colleague was forced to parachute in to the broadcast to rescue him.
This is the weekly drama that has audiences hanging on to every word — not for the information, but for the theatrics. They listen to the broadcast live, via the Internet and even over a local U.S. call-in number.
But while radio plays a critical role in this largely illiterate society, critics say the popular program, which has the ear of the masses, could do better.
“I would like to see Ranmase address public policy as well as governance issues,” said Laurette Backer, who recently moved back to Haiti from New York to assist in running a family school. “Politics for politics’ sake does not lead anywhere.”
Still Backer, who spent 20 years as a litigation and forensics expert, doesn’t miss a moment.
She isn’t the only one.
A Media Consumption Survey presented to the U.S. Embassy by the Haiti polling firm, d.a.g.m.a.r., showed Ranmase is the top non-religious show on radio. It is found on Radio Television Caraibes, the most popular radio station in the country.